The slide started while I was dancing at my step-daughter’s wedding. Once it got going, there was no stopping it. One minute I was a twirling twinkle toes; the next I looked like a pregnant kangaroo. My prostheses, that I had worn since my recent double mastectomy, were too heavy for the strapless bra I had carefully stuffed them in.
Grabbing my startled husband, in what appeared to be a passionate embrace, but was actually a pathetic attempt to keep anyone else from seeing my suddenly gone-flat chest and newly inflated abdomen, I whispered to him to dance me off the floor.
When he could not hear, because of the lively band, my whisper grew louder until it turned into an irritated shout. “Dance me to the ladies room, damn it,” I was screaming just as the band ended the set and the room went quiet. Some people stared; some laughed. To his credit, my husband George, danced me out into the lobby and over to the ladies room without ever asking why I kept my body cemented to his, chest to chest.
“Sorry you’re having a problem babe,” he said sincerely as we stopped at the rest room door. He, of course, assumed I was having a tummy upset. As other women entered and left the ladies room, I stood there clinging to my husband as he tried to pry himself loose from my life-or-death hold on him. Smiling sweetly, as I nodded and waved to people we knew, I said to my husband, “Reach your hand under my jacket and unzip my dress.”
Giving me one of those looks that said “this is really not the time, and definitely not the place,” George took a moment to re-orient himself. Then he carefully slipped his hand under my jacket and began to slowly unzip my dress. I could see the light bulb go on in his head. By now, I had managed to turn us around so my back was facing a wall but my body was still tight against his. As though it were a perfectly normal thing to do at anywhere, let alone your daughter’s wedding, George, continued to slide the zipper as he, too, smiled and nodded at wedding guests.
“Stop there!” I gasped, as the zipper reached my waist. I had sorted visions of the boobs falling onto the floor without the weight of the zipper to keep them pressed to my abdomen. They would roll across the floor. People might step on them, or even worse, trip on them. One high heel sticking into the prosthesis would send silicone everywhere.
Someone would slip on the silicone and sue us for damages. And the boobs themselves cost $375 dollars each. Would this kind of a mishap be covered under replacement insurance?
The dark navy scoop neck, dress that I was wearing. had captured me in the department store because it had a nipped waist that flounced into a flared full length skirt. It made me want to dance. What could be more perfect for the dinner dance reception, even if my regular mastectomy bra would not work with it? When I had dressed for the wedding earlier in the evening, I had felt happy as I slipped on the matching mesh jacket that tied in the front, and checked myself out in the mirror. Although I am very thin, the prostheses and flared skirt gave me a nice shape.
Now I was paying the price. The question was, how to fix it? It wasn’t like I was walking into a ladies room full of friends. I didn’t know many of the guest here well. It takes accumulated years of friendship before you are comfortable asking a woman, “would you mind helping me with my boobs?”
Using the handicapped stall, because I felt my situation definitely came under the handicapped heading, I slipped off my jacket and carefully peeled down the front of my dress, catching my boobs before they fell into the toilet. I left the bra hooked, and, because it had nothing it in yet, it was loose enough to loop the back over the hook provided for hanging purses. Lowering myself to the floor so the hook would pull the bra up high, I prayed I wouldn’t accidentally hang myself and be found face down on my fake boobs.
Finally when the bra was up almost to my chin, I pushed the boobs in to make a nice tight fit. Even if it looked a little strange, this was a case where higher was definitely better than lower. Although I couldn’t get the zipper all the way up, I covered it with the jacket, and kept my elbows tight, to anchor the bra, trying to wash my hands with my elbows glued to my sides.
I casually, or so I hoped, returned to the lobby to find George waiting anxiously. “All’s well, if you’ll just give me a little zip,” I said lightly.
As I saw the tension drain from his face, I wondered if he, like I, had been imagining my boobs floating in the toilet, or worse yet, causing the toilet to overflow and arriving at the reception like a couple of extra short, round midgets. We returned to the party hand-in-hand, instead of the earlier death grip that marked our parting. That, however, marked the end of my dancing at that wedding.
This being the kind of incident you tend not to forget, I was ready for the battle of the boobs when my own daughter got married two years later. I set out with my long time best friend, (we call each other BB for best buddy) to find a dress that would, under no circumstances, need a strapless bra. There were, however, a few complications. It was a summer outdoor wedding in southern California -- the kind that speaks to sun dresses with light flowing layers. Scooped necks with bare shoulders. In other words, everything I couldn’t wear.
The too-high long-sleeve dresses I tried on were followed by short-sleeved shapeless long dresses with long jackets that make you look old and dowdy. This was my only child’s wedding. Dowdy wouldn’t do.
Barely three years prior, I had thought I wouldn’t live to see Sara get married. But here I was healthy, happy and fresh from giving a breast cancer survivor’s speech on how thrilled I was about the upcoming wedding.
“Thanks to the doctors and staff at this hospital, I am not even thinking about cancer today; I’m thinking about the upcoming wedding of my only child,” I had told 500 cancer patients and survivors at the Norris Cancer Center in Los Angeles. Because of these dedicated people, I am going to walk her down the aisle next month.”
And I wanted to look smashing.
Following our Jewish tradition, Sara had elected to have both her parents walk her down the aisle, even though her father and I have been divorced for over 25 years. Her groom, whose parents are deceased, had asked George, to whom I have been happily married 15 years, to walk him down the aisle. Everyone was getting along. George’s two daughters were maids of honor. Sara’s family and friends and mine were flying in from all over the country. My roommate from my Greenwich Village, 35 years prior, was coming in from England. It was celebration time. I felt great, and, not only did I want to look great, I wanted to look great AND dance at my daughter’s wedding, minus the kangaroo look I had perfected at step-daughter Amy’s wedding.
BB and I saw the dress at the same time. It was soft lavender silk, cut to just above the knee. My daughter had teased me that I should show off my legs at the wedding because they ate least were real. It had a top similar in style to the one in which I had worn for my disaster. It had a matching short jacket which I could use for the ceremony and remove for the reception. It was also two sizes too big. But I was in love.
Fortunately BB is very savvy about clothes. She saw immediately how the dress could be altered to fit me. “It’s perfect,” she said. “it’s your favorite color and exactly the style you want.” Dress in one arm and me on the other, she asked the saleswoman to call the store seamstress on our way to the dressing room.
As soon as we were in the dressing room, BB showed me that the dress had two layers on the top, leaving a place to sew in boobs. The first seamstresses arrived looking stern and set in her ways. A small woman with dark hair, she shook her head. “You cannot do this,” she said. “And you’re so skinny, you don’t need pads.”
Undaunted, BB asked for another seamstress. She knew that the fancy store had several on staff. Seamstress Number Two showed up in a flower print turtle neck and a long corduroy skirt. She tried to convince me to buy a different dress in my size, something more “fitting for the mother-of-the-bride,” she said pointing to a rack of long, loose Old Lady dresses.
“Is this all there is for me?” I turned to BB tears starting to roll down my cheeks. “You are a young-looking chic woman,” BB said firmly. She dabbed at my eyes with the white lace hankie she always carried in her purse. “And that’s how you’ll look at your daughter’s wedding.”
I flashed back to the day of my biopsy, three years earlier. I had been unable to lift my arms to get back into my own clothes. But BB wouldn’t let me go home in a hospital gown. “Give me ten minutes,” she told George and ran down to the gift shop. She found a long turquoise dress that looked pretty and that I could step into easily. Here she was again, making sure that I would look my best under any circumstances.
”Please call the lingerie department and tell them we need a mastectomy specialist,” BB told the saleswoman. You must have a seamstress in this store who can solve this problem. Have her meet us in lingerie.”
The next thing I knew we were in the lingerie section of the store picking out a selection of breast pads, otherwise known as falsies with the help of the specialist and Neha, the third seamstress.
Neha was sweet and grandmotherly, with a bun on her head and strong capable hands. “Of course we can make it work,” she said in response to my pleas that it was my only child’s wedding and I needed to look perfect.
Neha worked magic. I got back into the dress and she stuck pins in it, top to toe. I felt like a vooddoo doll. She transformed the size six dress into my size two. She stepped back and said “now we do pads.” The next minute a straight pin was pointing exactly where my left breast had once been. And then the right. She lifted the dresses upper layer and using the pins as a guideline for placement, she pinned the pads to the bottom layer. Then she stepped back and smiled. “I knew I would get it right first time.”
Five days later we went back for the fitting and it was perfect. I hugged Neha and cried. “How can I ever thank you?” I wanted to tip her generously. She shook her head. “The best thank-you you can give me would be to have a wonderful time at the wedding and bring me pictures.”
In that dress I felt more beautiful and more comfortable than I had since the mastectomy. As we left BB handed me a gift wrapped in tissue. “To complete your look,” she said. Inside was a delicate pair of lacy lavender panties, the exact color of my new dress. I thanked her. “These are so pretty, it’s too bad no one will see them,” I said.
I had spent the night with Sara at the hotel where she was being married and we had been up all night laughing and crying and being silly. And a little sad. It reminded me of my time with her as a single mom.
Sara is a product of those harried days and always lays out her clothes the night before going to work and gets herself organized for the day. Certainly her wedding day was no exception and she had arranged to have room service bring us breakfast in bed at 6 a.m., giving us an hour to linger before Eden, our friend and hairdresser, arrived to do hair and make-up.
Her elegant white silk dress hung from the closet door, zipped neatly into its garment bag, Her high-heeled white strappy sandals stood on the floor below. On the desk was the dramatic faux purple hydrangea she’d selected to wear in her hair instead of a veil. Next to it was the simple gold bracelet, a gift from my godmother, that I was loaning Sara for her “something borrowed.” That morning, for a moment, I envisioned her as a third-grader and felt there should be a shiny lunch box on the desk too.
Sara took my breath away when I saw her gowned and made up, with her silky long blond/brown hair cascading over her shoulders, the flower pulling her hair just slightly away from the side of her face. She looked competent and capable - her therapist look, the expression I imagine she carried on her job.
I was so proud to be her mother and wanted to make her proud of me. Most of all I didn’t want her to worry about me -- something she’d done far too much of since I had been diagnosed. Smiling at myself in the bathroom mirror I admired my for-once-in-my-life perfectly applied mascara and thanked my make-up maven. A moment later my beautiful baby-turned-bride called from the bedroom that the photographer was on her way up to our room.
I was so excited about the comfort of slipping into my new dress with built-in boobs that events swirled around me like a blur. “Heaven,” I thought as I stepped into my dress, minus agonizing undergarment, and pulled it up with ease. Eden zipped it for me and we laughed together about my instant shape. I was overwhelmed at how comfortable the dress was. Giddy with the glory of the moment, I danced barefoot over to my shoes. Normally I would have worn panty hose, but my fashion-conscious daughter insisted no stockings for a morning outdoor ceremony. So I crawled into my delicate silver sandals and stood with the bridal party for pre-wedding photos.
“Make sure you have everything you need,” Em, Sara’s best friend from college, commanded in her best maid of honor voice. “It’s time to head for the garden.” Feeling smugly organized I reached for my tiny bow-shaped silver purse (my husband’s sister calls it my Vanna White bag). I had carefully packed it the night before with the three things it would hold: my lipstick, mirror and a tranquilizer pill.
Purse clutched in perfectly manicured nails, held held high, I was off. I stopped for a moment to admire myself in the ornate hall mirror of the hotel. I felt so put together. So comfortable.
Almost too comfortable.
As we reached the outdoor staircase that led down to the garden, the warm July morning rewarded us with a soft breeze which blew up my dress and caressed my thighs and everything above. Suddenly my comfort turned to horror. I was not wearing any panties! The bride and her attendants were in long dresses but my above the knee signature lavender ensemble meant the guests already seated in the garden below could see up my dress as I descended the winding stone staircase.
Too comfortable indeed.
“I need a rest room visit immediately,” I whispered urgently to the wedding coordinator. “Give me five minutes.” Juliette, who, thank G-d could take orders as well as she gave them, moved to the top of the stone stairs and put her hand up to stop the procession. I tried to disappear inconspicuously. As soon as I hit the lobby, I took off my shoes and raced barefoot at top speed to my first floor room.
BB and I had joked that it was a shame no one would see my panties. Now I was happy for everyone to see them, in contrast to what they had almost seen.
No longer calm and cool, but definitely more covered, I sped back barefoot through the lobby, with the thin heels of my sandals hooked onto my Vanna White purse. Pausing at the door to step back into the shoes, I saw that my feet were sweaty and dirty. I slipped into the ladies room and dipped one foot at a time into the fancy sinks. I wiped each foot dry with the terry cloth towels.
As I left the lobby to return to the garden, panic set in, as I realized I was way over my five minute break. I turned to Vanna to get my Valium and it fell out of my hand and rolled down the stone steps, bouncing into oblivion. So much for tranquillity.
Back with the bridal party, I forced a weak smile. “ready to go,” Juliette announced in an authoritative voice. Panties on and boobs sewn perfectly in place, I slipped my arm through my daughter’s. Her dad took her other arm. “Wonder if he’s wearing underpants,” I thought.
And then I looked at Sara, who hadn’t forgotten anything she was supposed to wear, including the gorgeous smile on her pretty face. Suddenly the fact that I almost walked her down the aisle without any panties on seemed trivial. The sweaty feet didn’t matter. Nor did the tranquilizer pill that was now probably calming one of the fish in the garden pond.
This moment belonged to Sara. I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes. I was “happy inside” as Sara used to say when she was a little girl.
The music started and I moved into my good posture yoga pose. Tip of my head being pulled up by an imaginary string. Shoulders back, chest forward. Calming breath.
At that moment I heard a rustle in the greenery on my side of the walking path and my longtime friend Lou stuck her hand out of a bush and touched my shoulder. “Knockers up!” she whispered so only I could hear. I pushed my chest out a little more, laughing and crying.
As Sara, her dad, Dennis, and I walked down the aisle, easily handling it’s winding path, Lou, winked at me from her chair. Dennis and I took Sara to her groom and I took my seat under the weeping willow tree to do a little weeping of my own.
I never stopped dancing at the reception. And, not once, did George have to dance me to the ladies room.
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